Jessica still saw the decomposing baby before her eyes as clear as day, when her watch buzzed insistently. The screen flashed with a luminous green message:
NOTICE OF PRE CONTEMPLATION
CONFESSION – 1230
PROCEED TO THE CHAPEL IMMEDIATELY AFTER CLINIC
Her heart sank. This was exactly what she had come on board to escape.
The thoughts inside her head were all jumbled together, as if the short drop from the hammock had scrambled them. As she was trying to piece together a plan of action, she heard steps outside. It must be her first patient. The watch helpfully buzzed with the name:
MR O’DONOGHUE – 0930
She had completely forgotten about clinic. Adrenaline rushed through her, damping her increasing panic in an icy wave. Putting herself back together to work was second nature to Jessica. She dashed through to the adjoining room and accessed the computer system. The correct records flashed up on the screen in front of her. Age fifty four, recent coronary artery bypass surgery. She cleared her mind of thoughts of the Captain and memories of her past, wiping it clean in a single sweep. As she did so, she felt the expression on her face relax, the echo of her horrified scowl replaced with a calm yet concerned facade. No sooner had she done so than there was a knock on the door.
“Come on in,” she said.
A stocky, white haired gentleman entered, face weathered with deep wrinkles, looking much older than she had been expecting. He greeted her effusively in a strong Irish accent.
“Well hello Doctor, delighted to meet you I am sure. How are you finding our good ship Spiral Dial? Is she not luxurious?” He sat down in the chair, pulled it as close as he could to her and spread his legs wide apart, claiming his territory.
“I’m delighted to be here, Mr O’Donoghue,” Jessica replied, blandly.
“Oh stop with the Mister. It’s Michael. You know, Doctor, they say I need to come and see you for these checks, but I feel as fit as a fiddle! Never been better. It’s the sea air. That’s what my wife says, anyway, and she should know.”
“Well, Michael, I see you’ve had a recent operation, so it’s just as well we check you over. Any problems at all? Chest pain, palpitations, fatigue?” Best get straight down to business.
“Oh no, Doctor. You’ll see- take my blood pressure. I’m in tip top condition. They did a great job of the operation in London. I know Mr Barnsley well, you see. The surgeon. Do you know him?” He carried on talking at high speed as she put the blood pressure cuff on his arm. “He wanted to follow me up himself, you know, but I simply had to get out of London right away. “
Jessica nodded and smiled. His chattering came as a pleasant distraction under the circumstances.
“I raised over four million pounds for that hospital, you know. Made all my money in property, you see. Still, that’s how I ended up on this voyage. Done too much good for my own good, if you get what I mean.”
“How do you mean?” she asked, interested despite herself.
“Well, I’m tender hearted, you see. My wife’ll tell you I’m too tender hearted for my own good. I simply can’t abide people who treat nurses badly, you know. It’s always the nurses who suffer. You’ll see Doctor.”
Jessica pricked up her ears. “What have you heard about nurses suffering, Michael?”
“They always suffer, terrible it is. In London it’s those filthy immigrants. Doing God alone knows what. Can you believe there’s a man alive who would rape a nurse? Well, there you are. Filthy scum, the lot of them. Still, they were on the wrong man’s patch- know what I mean?”
“I’m not sure I understand?”
“You’ve got to show them, Doctor. You’ve got to show them who’s boss. Show them you won’t take any of their shit. It’s the only thing they respect. They won’t be raping any more of our nurses. I kneecapped the lot of them. Hadn’t used a shotgun since the Troubles, but there’s some stuff you don’t forget.”
Jessica’s eyes widened, although she managed to keep her face mostly expressionless.
He continued, “Police had to warn me, you see. I’d done too many. They called me up and said, Michael, I know you’re a pillar of the community and Lord knows we agree with what you’re doing but we have to tell you, you’re caught on camera this time. They said they’d give me forty eight hours to get out of the country. Luckily, the wife had been banging on about going on this cruise for a while, so it all worked out perfectly in the end.” He paused, looking her directly in the eye for the first time. “So, what is it you’re running away from, Doctor?”
Jessica made no comment.
“I know when someone’s running, me. We’re all running away from something, here.” He fell silent and his eyes looked far into the distance for some minutes, remembering.
Jessica took the opportunity to ask, “Do you know any of the nurses on this ship, by any chance?”
“Oh yes, Doctor, I do. Lovely young girl, what’s her name now? Angela? Something like that. Amy, that’s it. Yellow hair. Very attractive young lady. I’d love to have her nursing me one of these days.”
Jessica took the opportunity to quiz him in a little more detail. “Do you know if Amy has any particular friends on board, a partner perhaps?”
“Oh no, she’s very religious, that one. Always see her in the chapel with her rosary. Good girl, she is. Very good. Always wearing a crucifix, too. You could say she’s got a divine chest,” he leered without the slightest trace of irony.
Jessica could not help sniffing in disapproval, despite herself.
“Oh sorry Doctor, I can tell you’re a woman of God too. Are you Protestant or Catholic, now?”
“Actually, I’m neither.” Changing the subject, Jessica continued, “Your blood pressure is perfect. It looks like you’re as fit as a fiddle, as you said. I’ll need to see you again in a month’s time for your final checkup.”
“Of course, Doctor.” Michael got up and was half way out of the door when he turned back. “Tell me Doctor, can I see you next time I come in?”
Jessica was already half focused on the morning’s problems, and had to wrench her attention back to her patient. “I think I can promise that. I’m the only doctor here, so you won’t have much choice in the matter.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“What do you mean, that’s what they all say?” This didn’t sound quite right.
“All the doctors, I mean. They don’t seem to last long.”
“How long have you been on board, Michael?”
“Oh, I suppose coming up for three months, something like that. I couldn’t swear to it. But it seems to me like I see someone different every time. I remember the last one though, lovely red hair. I thought perhaps you were on a rota, like.”
“Well, Michael, if you find any other doctors on board, I’d be delighted if you’d let me know. I can always do with some help!”
He made agreeable noises and left without further ado. Just like that, the computer informed her that her clinic was now over for the day. Mercifully short.
She sat back in her chair and allowed herself to contemplate the morning’s events. All the doctors, he said. They don’t seem to last long. She didn’t feel safe in this place. Quite possibly it had something to do with the high prevalence of racist misogynists on board. There had been too many strange events, one following the other. Never in her life had she felt so trapped. Staring at the screen, she felt the urge to check up on Colonel Black online, see if any news had filtered through. He would never have dared threaten her like this had there been any chance she might physically come after him. Searching the programs on the computer, she found not a single internet browser amongst them. It seemed to be a standalone machine. That made sense, of course, for medical records. Reflexively, she reached for her phone, before remembering that she had been instructed to leave it on shore.
No Internet. She cast her mind back. Of course. It had been in the terms and conditions. Which she had signed up to, without fully comprehending what they meant. Exactly as Ant had told her. Feeling hopeless, she resolved to go and run the day’s lab tests.
Entering the next room, she tripped over a large white object planted in the middle of the floor. Archie’s subwoofer. There would be no shortage of bass in a room this size. At least it was silent. For now. Gritting her teeth, she took her samples, loaded up the machines and prepared to scan Amy’s belly.
Amy’s face was still swollen and distorted beneath the dressings. Her colour was poor, and her visible skin had lost its sheen. Jessica wished she felt some pity or compassion for her and the baby, but she was well past that. All she could feel was fear. Not even fear for what would happen to her, or what would happen to any of them. Just fear of her past. She was afraid to look at the child, afraid that it would bring back unwanted memories.
She focused on procedure. It had been a while since she had done any ultrasounds, but at one time, during her research, it had been routine, and she had not lost the skill. A grainy black and white image of the foetus flashed up on the screen in front of her. Amy was hardly showing, and yet this baby was much larger than she might have expected. She would put it around twenty weeks gestation. If Michael was right about the length of the voyage so far, that meant that Amy could well have already been around eight weeks pregnant when she boarded Spiral Dial. She took some notes and saved some pictures. Everything seemed to be progressing well. It made a nice change to scan a healthy baby for once. She managed to avoid thinking of anything at all until her watch buzzed once more:
IT IS TIME FOR YOUR CONFESSION
She had completely forgotten about her confession. Panic bubbled up through the artificial, clinic-imposed calm. Just at that moment, a familiar Australian twang piped up outside the door.
“G’day, Doc!” Ant came in without knocking. Luckily her back was turned, so he could not see her expression. She said nothing and pretended to be very busy adjusting one of the machines responsible for Jessica’s breathing. “I’m just off to the Chapel, figured you might need some help finding it on your first day. Wanna take a walk?”
One thing was very clear in Jessica’s mind. She was not in a fit state to enter a chapel right now. Thinking on her feet, she said, “Sure, just give me one minute. Would you mind drawing the curtain? I’m just finishing up in here.” After he did so, she pressed a bright, shiny blue button on one of the monitors, triggering an insistent alarm. Making some rustling sounds with a dressing packet, she spoke firmly.
“I’ve really got to sort this out right away, Ant. Would you mind terribly giving the Chaplain my apologies?”
Ant’s anxiety of the previous night seemed strangely absent. “Sure, Doc, you sort her out. The chapel is downstairs, one floor down from the dining hall. I’ll let them know you’ll be a few minutes late.” He had gone before she had a chance to tell him that she had no intention whatsoever of attending the Chapel today, be it in a few minutes or a few hours. As soon as his footsteps had faded, she turned the alarms off, checked that she had not messed up any of the controls on the machine and flung back the curtain. The watch lit up again.
IT IS TIME FOR YOUR CONFESSION.
She tapped the display and it quietened down. She breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps she would take a walk on deck, maybe relax by the pool. It was lunchtime after all, and a break might calm her nerves. As she left the clinic and started walking away from the stairs, her watch started to emit a low pitched whine, rising and falling in pitch in the manner of an ambulance siren. The display flashed up again:
IT IS TIME FOR YOUR CONFESSION.
PROCEED TO THE CHAPEL IMMEDIATELY.
Jessica swiped at it, but the noise did not abate. It was now at a level where it was likely to cause a disturbance.
She was just passing the guests’ cabins, and heard an elderly woman’s voice instructing her to “Keep that racket down out there!” in a strong Irish accent from behind the door of Cabin Six. She broke into a jog, repeatedly swiping at her watch, trying to get the damn thing to shut up, but it only got louder and louder. She ran faster and faster, trying to escape from this interminable corridor before somebody came out to see what on earth was going on.
By the time she emerged into the bright sunshine of the deck, the noise was positively ear splitting. She thought her head might explode with the pressure. Past the swimming pool she ran, up onto a raised platform at the front of the ship. She ripped the watch from her wrist and flung it over the side of the boat. It hit the water with a satisfying splash, and Jessica slumped to the floor. She took a deep breath as her ears processed the blessed relief of silence. Closing her eyes, she focused on breathing in, counting to four, then breathing out, and repeat. She had completed two cycles in this way when she realised that the sound of her inhalations and exhalations had a quiet echo. There was another human breathing almost in time with her, and that meant that there must be someone close. Very close. Slowly, she opened her eyes.
Archie sat next to her on the floor, head tilted to one side quizzically, eyebrows slightly raised. He was sitting in an effortless lotus position, perched atop a scruffy old tartan blanket. Her heart sank and she dropped her eyes, flushing scarlet. He was the last person she would have wanted to come across in these circumstances, and yet she somehow felt at ease with him. They had both instinctively sought sanctuary in this deserted corner of the ship. Suddenly they had something in common.
“Well, well, well. And I thought I was the only atheist on board,” Archie said.
“You can’t get out of it, you know. You’ll have to go eventually, “ he replied.
He shook his head in frustration and smiled. “Confession, of course. It’s good for the soul, right? Or at least, that’s what they tell me.”
“Are you telling me that you go to Confession?”
“Go? Me, go? I don’t go. You’re the one who goes- goes like a bloody rocket. I’ve never seen anything so hilarious. That stinking watch, in the drink, just like that. Absolutely classic.” His tone was positively gleeful.
“Oh God, how much do you think they cost?” Jessica felt like a naughty schoolgirl who was about to get fined for losing a library book.
“Who cares? I’d pay anything just to see you chuck it off the side one more time. Absolutely priceless, that was. You should have seen you. I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole life. Talk about sticking it to the Man.”
He started laughing under his breath. The sound of his laugh was a cross between a cackle and a snuffle, the sound you might expect from a witch who had been transformed into a pig. It was contagious. Jessica started to smile along with him despite herself, and before long they were both holding their sides, laughing uncontrollably until the tears rolled down their faces. It got to the point where Jessica could hardly breathe for laughing, and every time she thought she might slow down she would catch sight of Archie’s face and it would trigger a fresh round of hysterics.
Eventually, their laughter petered out. Jessica felt an unfamiliar warmth within her, together with a degree of relaxation she had forgotten existed. Laughter seemed to be much better for her soul than the prospect of confessing her sins.
Archie turned to her and started speaking rapidly, almost throwing his words away, “Look, I know you’ll be wanting me to tell you all about Confession, but the truth is I’m afraid I simply don’t know. Don’t hate me, but we have an exemption. The band, I mean. You see, I explained it all to the Captain before we signed up, and I think she got it. It’s just this. A baseline level of existential angst is absolutely necessary to make good music. If we got rid of all our guilt and shame, there’d be no reason for us to do it any more. We’d all just relax and carry on enjoying our lives, and where’s the juice in that? So we don’t Confess. We get a special Blessing, before every show. Don’t worry, I make sure I look suitably devout. I’ll give you some tips, if you like. You’ll need some, after the Captain finds out what you’ve done with that watch.”
Jessica ignored that last swipe. “Do you really think that your music comes from your internal suffering?”
“Oh no, I don’t think anything of the sort. I just think that God is absolute horseshit, and it sounded like a suitably profound excuse.”
“Right.” Jessica knew she should agree, but the words wouldn’t come. They sat there in silence, suddenly awkward.
Archie looked directly at her. “You’re not an atheist, are you?” It was more of a statement than a question.
Jessica shook her head, slowly.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Jessica didn’t answer.
He continued, “I know I don’t seem like I listen a lot, and that is an accurate perception on most levels, but I’m actually an excellent listener when someone’s got something interesting to say. You’ve got an interesting story, haven’t you?”
Jessica looked directly at him. “That’s as may be. Why on earth would you want to know?”
“Well, I’ll be honest. I’m all out of ideas for our shows. That’s why I came up here. To get away from it. It’s a lot of pressure, you know, playing like that every day. I just don’t have enough drama in my life these days to sustain it. What I need is a tortured soul, and unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s you. So: if you tell me your story and save me from writer’s block, not only will I listen to you and make sympathetic noises, I’ll promise never to tell another living soul.”
He paused. “Just to clarify, I mean I won’t tell them in word form. I’ll convert it into music and they’ll be none the wiser. Do we have a deal?”
Just at that moment, a distinctive Australian voice came into earshot. “Jessica! Jessica, where are you?”
“Looks like it’s time for you to face the music,” Archie quipped. “Meet me tonight, won’t you? After the show. We can talk then. Up here. Ten o’clock.”
She swiftly got to her feet. “Maybe.”
He called after her, “Jessica! I forgot to mention. I’ll give you a writing credit for the music, if you like. How does ten per cent sound?”
She shook her head and carried on walking. “Ten per cent of my own soul? Sounds like I’d be robbed.”
“I’ll see you tonight, darling! Don’t be late!”
She ignored him and focused on her breathing. As she stepped down onto the deck by the pool, she knew instinctively that she must appear completely in control when Ant first saw her.
“Jessica! I’ve been looking all over for you. We missed you at the Chapel. Where on earth have you been?” Ant sounded agitated.
Jessica gave what she hoped was a reassuring, matter-of-fact smile. “I was feeling a little seasick, needed to get some fresh air up on deck. I hope you sent Patricia my apologies. Did you have a good Confession?”
“Oh yes, today was a good one. One of the classics, actually. We really got deep into the scripture. Ecclesiastes 8:13. Let me tell you….”and he was off, detailing the finer points of the Bible he had focused on in his discussion with the Almighty. One would have thought they were personally acquainted, Jessica mused. She kept nodding and smiling to encourage his verbal diarrhoea. It gave her time to think.
As she listened to Ant, she noted his expression. There was a hint of steel hidden behind the affable exterior. She did not find his devout ramblings at all convincing. Up here, in the sunlight and open air, the complexities of the previous day seemed distant, yet she knew them to have happened. She reached within herself to assess her instinctive reaction to Ant. When she had first met him, her initial response had been to defend herself. She still felt that at some level he could not be trusted. She must be very careful around him from now on.
She dropped in to the dining room, grabbed herself a sandwich and made her excuses. She felt that she needed to make some notes and clear her head.
Retiring to her cabin, she sat down at the barrel-desk. It seemed one of the more comforting items she had come across on board. It took her back to the previous evening, when she had retired to her room blissfully unaware of Amy, the Captain or memories of the Colonel.
There was a little cup on the desk containing a thick pencil. Spiral Dial was printed on its side in plain script. The cup rested next to a pad of thick letterhead paper, such as one would expect to find in an upper class hotel. It felt reassuringly expensive to the touch. She lifted the pencil and put it to the paper. It was a soft pencil, and made a satisfyingly crisp, dark line on the page.
Jessica was not much of a writer, but she did enjoy making lists. She started one now. To do lists were made to be completed. Therefore, any item on a to do list must by virtue of its presence on such a list be doable. Nothing could harm her if a simple tick could obliterate its existence.
The first item on the list was Amy.
Bacteria: Where? How?
The second item on the list was Black.
Who is the Captain?
How much do they know?
The third item on the list was Ship.
How does it work?
What research? Find out.
The fourth item on the list was Trust.
She stared at it for a long while, before gently putting her pencil down. She couldn’t think of any sub headings for that last one.
Now to prioritise.
She’d always lived by the seven Ps- proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance. First she must find out everything she could about how the ship worked, what research they were doing. The vessel surely must have a method of communication with base. She had to gain access to that channel. Only by successfully doing this could she redress the balance of power.
She looked at the list long and hard, etching the tasks into her memory. Sure that she had a strong grasp of what had to be done, she slowly and deliberately tore the paper into tiny pieces and disposed of them in her bathroom. A sense of calm descended on her. As she returned to the bedroom, she felt the deck beneath her vibrate faintly, and immediately a sense of deep fatigue came over her. Automatically, she walked over to the bed and laid down, eyelids closing before she had a chance to process what was happening. Part of her was outraged by the idea of an afternoon nap when there was a patient to look after. The other part of her was strangely excited at the prospect of discovering some new and fantastical world.
It seemed immediately she had laid down, she opened her eyes. She was in the same room, lying on the same bed, but she was unable to move. Her whole body was pinned to the bed. A great weight held her securely pinned to the mattress. She could breathe, but only with some considerable effort. She focused on her breathing. In. Out. In. Out. The room was bathed in an eerie green light which emanated from the porthole window. A soft clicking noise drew her attention. It came from her desk. A hooded figure sat there and was playing an insistent drum beat on the barrel. On closer inspection she saw that he was using a pair of the ship’s own branded pencils.
Suddenly, the door of the room opened and Michael entered. He paid her and the drummer no mind, as if they were invisible. He walked over to the closet next to the desk muttering a few words repeatedly under his breath. Jessica struggled to catch his words. As he muttered, he placed one hand on the closet door, yet did not open it. At once the pressure on her body was released, and she immediately sat bolt upright in bed. A deep shadow cascaded downwards from the doorhandle and spread across the floor. The shadow faded in and out at random, making it seem as if the floor bubbled. Michael’s words grew louder, and she made out the phrase, “Long his days, long his days, long his days” The beat of the drums deepened with the cascade and grew louder and louder, developing into an incongruously tropical riff.
All at once, Michael and the shadow dissolved and Jessica was sitting upright in her bed. She pinched herself, wondering if she were awake or in a dream. All that remained was the tropical beat of the drum. No light came from the porthole. It must be night time. The drum beat was loud, and it shook her room.
It must be the concert.
She heard a commotion outside her room, the sound of many steps, many people. Snatching the covers aside, she rushed out to find the corridor filled with bodies contorting and rubbing up against each other. Hands grabbed at her and she pushed them away, forcing her way through. She felt that she must get to the clinic and check on Amy. It had been too long. She finally reached the door to the clinic and slipped inside, away from the crowd, but there was no relief from the noise. Archie’s sound system was in full flow. The sounds of the machines maintaining Amy’s breathing were inaudible below a repetitive beat which shook the whole room. The music sounded incongruously cheerful.
The ultrasound machine still stood at Amy’s bedside. Jessica wondered what effect the sound would have on the child. She lifted the probe and placed it on Amy’s stomach. The grainy image appeared straight away. It, too, seemed to distort in time with the music. The baby’s heartbeat was slightly more rapid than the music, but not much, so it seemed slightly out of phase. The image seemed to flicker. Jessica could feel her hand shaking. A particularly loud beat dislodged the probe, angling it slightly differently. Jessica cursed. Before she could move her hand, she realised that the image was still there. Another baby? Surely she couldn’t have missed it. She scanned across the whole of Amy’s tummy again. Watching the two hearts together, she saw that they were exactly in time with each other. The images moved in tandem, but in opposite directions. She realised that she must be looking at a reflection. Unusual, but possible. Fascinated, she watched as the image faded and returned. The music became more discordant, and all at once the reflection swirled and distorted. The mirror-heart enlarged until it was the size of a much older baby’s, maybe 30 weeks gestation, and the heartbeat slowed until it was in exact time with the music. Her hand started to tingle. Now she could only see the mirror-heart. The other appeared completely concealed. She watched the internal organs of the baby gradually fragment and splinter into small pieces with each and every beat.
The louder and jollier the music became, the more the image disintegrated. Jessica watched in horror as the music got faster and faster and higher and higher, until there was nothing on the screen but static, wherever she moved the probe she could find nothing.
The music stopped, but the screen remained blank. The baby had disappeared.